“The heavens declare the glory of God,” David exults, “and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” I wonder what the sky looked like when David wrote this psalm. Was it late at night? Did a full moon illuminate the city of Jerusalem around him? Or did its slender curve of light suspend delicately in the sky? Does it matter? What if it had been a cloudy, gray day?
“In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.”
The sun! What could be more ordinary in the landscape? But David’s words sing with admiration and delight. He had the vision which enabled him to see the the ordinary, the everyday before him as it really is: an exuberant proclamation of the glory of God.
Then comes the puzzle, for me: verse 7 completely changes subjects. David moves from an exultant description of the heavens to a description of God’s word. Law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, rules. How does he get here?
Without the second half of Psalm 19, we’d have six beautiful verses on the beauty of creation. Perhaps David realizes that to end there would be sentimental: it would leave us with a sweet, satisfied feeling that was unearned and gratuitous. He’d be in good company if he had done so: plenty of art and writing about the physical world around us actually disdains it. Benjamin Myers describes sentimentality, not as “too much feeling, but too thin an experience.” Sentimental art, he argues, “seems to exist only to congratulate the poet and the reader, loading a weight of wonder and faith and yearning onto a flimsy, cardboard version of reality.”
As beautiful as the images of the heavens in Psalm 19 are, they are not the full reality. Perhaps the realization of this moves David into verse seven, where he acknowledges another source of knowledge about God: God’s word. Creation declares God’s glory, but our observance of creation often leaves us unaffected: we revel in the experience for a moment, perhaps a bit longer, but then we continue on. Something else is needed, and something else has been given. God gives his law and it implicates us. We cannot hear his word and go away the same. We may refuse to listen, but now we stand condemned.
As one who has truly listened, David responds appropriately: “Who can discern his errors?” He recognizes that too often the beauty of the world simply allows us to congratulate ourselves, and that even after hearing the word of God, we can remain blind to our own failings. We ourselves are creatures, and yet unlike the heavens, we have a choice to glorify God — a choice that we often refuse.
Eugene Peterson observes that “The Latin words humus, soil/earth, and homo, human being, have a common derivation, from which we also get our word ‘humble.’ This is the Genesis origin of who we are: dust — dust that the Lord God used to make us a human being.” If sentimentality distances us from the natural world through cheap emotion, revelation draws us closer. This place where we live is not simply our environment; instead, “it is part of us and we are part of it.”
Creation declares God’s glory, but creation is not unmarred; it groans, crying out for redemption. To recognize this summons a deeply emotional response, but a costly one. Costly because we must receive the reminder of our sinfulness. Costly because we must accept the responsibility of stewards. Costly because we cannot dismiss the physicality, the specificity of where we are. We cannot generalize to abstractions; the world we must truly see and delight in and care for is this world here. It is the dirt we tread on, tracked into the house on bare feet and swept off of our floors.